My wife Tillie and I had a wonderful month plus of travel, but we are glad to be home. The experiences we had of seeing the pyramids, temples and tombs of ancient Egypt and the magnificent sights of Jordan (especially Petra) was one we will cherish. We learned a great deal about history and the people of current Muslim cultures, and we are grateful to the Lord that we could make the trip.
For any regular readers out there, we are sorry for the lengthy period without posting a Bible study, but there was no way to continue during the overseas tour. In this essay we pick up where we left off in late May. In the last posted essay, we studied 2 Samuel 19:16-20:26, which records what I called “The Politics of David’s Restoration.” Since people took sides during the civil war of David’s reign, much healing was needed when David came back to the throne. Once the war was over, many who had participated in the rebellion came to David even before he returned to Jerusalem to make their peace, or to seek a place in the restored kingdom. As David dealt with the supplicants, we saw both the good and evil of politics at work.
With this essay we begin the last major portion of the book, which contains a hodgepodge of material that makes it a bit hard to classify. The information comes from various times in David’s reign, and it contains poetry as well as narrative and some historical records. So I, like Joyce Baldwin, will call it an “Epilogue.”
The first matter reported in the section is about a three-year famine in the land that led David to ask the Lord the reason for it. That is, after the famine had gone on for a prolonged length of time, David concluded it was a judgment of the Lord rather than a natural event. And he was correct.
In verses 1-9, we see that when David inquired, the Lord told him the famine was due to a sin committed by Saul when he had been king. Now this indicates that the famine took place fairly early in David’s reign, during the glory years. It had to be before David invited Mephibosheth to his table; and that is recorded in chapter nine.
Saul’s attempt to eliminate the Gibeonites is not itself recorded, so we don’t know the exact circumstances that led to the famine. However the covenant that Israel made with the Gibeonites is recorded. That record is found way back in chapter nine of the book of Joshua. The Gibeonites had tricked Israel into thinking they were from a far country rather than being part of the Canaanite peoples. And Israel made a covenant with the Gibeonites in the name of the Lord that they would not harm them.
This was the treaty Saul disregarded when he killed many of the Gibeonites of his day. Perhaps Saul did that near the end of his reign. At any rate, the Lord brought judgment upon Israel in regard to that sin of Saul’s after David became king.
Once David learned the cause of the famine, he called the Gibeonites to him and asked them what they would suggest as a way to forgive the sin. They replied that they didn’t want money as compensation. Instead they required blood for blood to expiate the sin. They asked that seven of Saul’s sons, using sons in the sense of descendants, be given to them for execution. This was in harmony with the Jewish law. Numbers 35:31, for example, declares that a murderer’s life cannot be saved by ransom with money. He must be executed. The number seven, of course, was a holy number.
Scholars differ as to the type of execution intended. Some want to argue for crucifixion, but the Hebrews didn’t do crucifixions. When they hung a man on a tree, he already was dead; and the hanging was an act of humiliation. The best likelihood for the mode of death is that they impaled them and left them unburied, an example of which is seen in Num. 25:4.
David agreed to their demand even though it was in opposition to the law’s requirement that fathers were not supposed to be put to death for the sins of their sons, nor sons put to death for the sins of their fathers. That’s Deut. 24:16.
David spared Mephibosheth, but he handed over two sons of Saul born to a concubine named Rizpah and five grandsons born to Saul’s daughter Merab. And they were killed “at the beginning of the barley harvest, which was in the spring.
The next paragraph (verses 10-14) shows the extraordinary love of Rizpah. Rizpah in her grief went to the site of the execution and protected the bodies day and night from carrion eating birds and animals until the drought-related famine was broken by rain. Of course once the rains came the bodies could be buried.
When the touching act of Rizpah was told to David, he decided to do something nice for Saul’s family. He had the bones of Saul and Jonathan collected from Jabesh-Gilead, and those of the seven “sons” of Saul who had been killed by the Gibeonites from their resting place; and then he had them all buried at the family tomb of Kish, the father of Saul, in the land of Benjamin. And prayers were answered once again in the land.
The balance of the chapter (verses 15-22) tells of four heroic acts performed by David’s men in the wars with the Philistines. Very few details are given, and the events appear to have occurred across a number of years. The same four incidents are paralleled, with only some minor differences of detail, in 1 Chron. 20:4-8.
The first of the four heroic actions involved David himself. David was personally involved in the battle, and he became very tired while fighting one of the descendants of the giants named Ishbibenob. Joab’s brother, Abishai, came to David’s rescue and killed Ishbibenob (vv. 15-16). That led to the decision that David would no longer personally fight in the wars (v. 17).
The second story is extremely brief. It simply states that Sibbecai killed a giant named Saph. Sibbecai was one of David’s commanders of 24,000 listed in 1 Chron. 27:11.
The third account is similarly brief. It tells us that Elhanan killed a giant named Goliath. In the parallel in 1 Chron. 20:5, we are told that he killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath. The scholars disagree about how to handle this. When they are all boiled down, the most likely possibility in my opinion is that the Chronicles account probably is correct; and this one in 2 Samuel is corrupt. But there is no way to know for sure.
The fourth and last incident is about a six-fingered, six-toed giant whom a nephew of David’s named Jonathan killed. The thing that links the four stories together is that descendants of the so-called giants were involved in them all. Since the information is so limited, the author may have taken it directly from some kind of list of heroic exploits.
Turning to application, to me the most admirable character in the chapter is Rizpah. You might want to meditate on what her example could mean to us.
The larger question relating to this chapter is this. Do you believe God really wanted David to sacrifice seven of Saul’s sons and grandsons as the Gibeonites requested? The Lord did send the rains in response (v. 14). But was the method chosen his intentional will? There certainly is room for debate here, but I don’t think so. God’s law clearly declared that sons are not to be put to dearth for the sins of the fathers. Therefore, to me this is an example of how God, in his interactions with human beings, sometimes accommodates himself to human frailties and weaknesses.